Bulls

10 observations: LaVine propels Bulls to win in opener

Bulls

For the first time since 2016, the Chicago Bulls opened their regular season with a win.

That victory came in the form of a 94-88 out-grueling of the Detroit Pistons on the road. It wasn’t pretty, but the Bulls will certainly take it.

Here are 10 observations:

1. Early on, and throughout, there were signs of first-day-of-the-season rust by both teams. The Pistons ended a gnarly first quarter ahead 20-14, but neither team shot well from the field — the Pistons 31 percent, the Bulls 29.2 percent. Alex Caruso hit the Bulls’ first 3-pointer of the evening two minutes and 11 seconds into the second quarter, and they finished 7-for-24 from deep.

2. At halftime, when the Pistons led 44-40, the Bulls were just 7-for-20 at the rim, 2-for-9 from 3-point range and had visited the free-throw line just four times — not to mention their 10 turnovers. The Bulls’ defense, which held the Pistons to 36.7 percent shooting, kept them afloat. Surely that’s not a sentence you expected to read at the start of the night.

3. The Bulls’ defense was solid all night, holding Detroit to 40 percent shooting and a 6-for-28 mark from 3. The Pistons also coughed up 17 turnovers, off which the Bulls scored 22 points. And the rebound margin ended up plus-one in the Bulls’ favor despite playing at a size deficit for parts of the game.

 

4. Of all the confounding offensive statistics produced by the Bulls in this one — their 15 free-throw attempts and 18 assists weren't enough, their 17 turnovers were too many — the at-the-basket finishing numbers were the most startling. The Bulls ended the night 16-for-37 in the restricted area, good for 43.2 percent shooting at the rim. Many of those smoked bunnies came on clean looks.

5. Zach LaVine was just about the only Bull that could consistently get cooking offensively. He scored 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting in the first half — nine points on 4-for-5 shooting (1-for-1 from 3) in the second quarter alone. Oh, and there was this:

Then, he exploded for another 15 points in the third quarter, at one juncture almost single-handedly engineering an 11-2 Bulls run to reclaim the lead. He scored eight of the 11 Bulls points in that stretch, then assisted on a Nikola Vučević  3-pointer that thrust the Bulls in front 59-57. Through three quarters, LaVine led all scorers with 26 points on 10-for-14 shooting.

His night ended with 34 points (11-for-17 shooting), seven rebounds and four assists. Six of those points came in the form of game-icing free throws — LaVine was an eye-popping 11-for-11 from the charity stripe — and two of those rebounds capped critical defensive possessions in the closing seconds. He was spectacular.

6. The other members of the Bulls’ All-Star scoring trio also cracked double-figures, but Vučević (15 points, 7-for-21 shooting) and DeMar DeRozan (17 points, 8-for-17 shooting) combined to shoot just 15-for-38 (39.5 percent) from the floor. 

Vučević, in particular, got off to a slow start, shooting 2-for-9 in the first quarter and 5-for-14 in the first half, with seven misses coming at the rim. It was evident frustration was setting in when he picked up a rare technical foul, and his lobbying of the referees didn’t stop there. Still, he posted a first-half double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds, and finished the night with 15 rebounds and four assists.

DeRozan spent time anchoring reserve-laden lineups to mixed success, but had some timely buckets down the stretch of the fourth quarter, including a late-shot-clock 3-pointer. He had some tough moments defensively, but also nabbed three steals.

7. Though Caruso scored just three points, his impact on the game was profound. He notched four steals, three assists and two blocks, and was generally an all-encompassing force defensively — flying after loose balls, diving into passing and driving lanes, and mucking up actions. Save for a few possession-specific substitutes in the final minute, Caruso closed the contest alongside Ball, LaVine, DeRozan and Vučević, and acquitted himself well.

That could be a unit Billy Donovan leans on in high-leverage moments throughout the season. Caurso played 27 minutes to Patrick Williams' 28. Each of the Bulls' other four starters played 33-38 ticks.

8. Even against an inferior opponent playing without its No. 1 overall pick in Cade Cunningham, it shouldn’t go unmentioned that the Bulls out-executed the Pistons down the stretch of the game despite playing poorly throughout. Donovan pointed to free-throw success and timely defense for that. Credit Williams, by the way, for a forced-miss on Jerami Grant on a game-deciding possession, despite not playing for much of the stretch run.

 

Last season, the Bulls finished 14-21 in games within a five-point margin with five minutes or less to play. They're 1-0 in 2021-22, warts and all.

9. There were two mildly surprising rotation developments. Alize Johnson saw 12 minutes at backup center over Tony Bradley. And with Troy Brown Jr. in early foul trouble, 2021 second-round pick Ayo Dosunmu saw plenty of action as well. There were rookie moments (a missed layup here a fumbled catch there), but he was generally impactful, scoring seven points and hitting a 3-pointer in 11 minutes.

10. The Bulls, now 1-0, own a record above-.500  record for the first time — at any point in a season — since March 3, 2017. On March 2, 2017, a Chicago starting lineup of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Bobby Portis, Robin Lopez and Jerian Grant bested the Golden State Warriors at the United Center to move to 31-30. On March 4, the Bulls fell to the Los Angeles Clippers to drop back to .500. That season eventually ended with a 41-41 record and a first-round playoff exit. A morbid milestone.

Next up: The home opener against the New Orleans Pelicans (sans Zion Williamson) on Friday.

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